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Broadband's Impact

Jim Baller, Champion of Municipal Broadband, Fights the Fight for More Than 25 Years



August 1, 2020 — Jim Baller has dedicated much of his life to advocating for universal high capacity broadband.

Baller was inspired to become a broadband advocate when he had a lull in his practice as an energy attorney.

He began doing pro bono work for the American Public Power Association, a national association representing the interests of America’s 2,000 publicly-owned electric utilities, in the early 1990s.

During this time, Baller wrote a white paper for APPA comparing the emerging period in telecom to the period of electrification in the power industry.

APPA and many of its members were growing increasingly concerned that the history of the power industry would repeat itself in the telecom era. Many rightfully feared that phone and cable companies would focus on profitable urban markets, thus leaving rural communities behind in the emerging era of advanced digital communications.

Baller’s paper contributed to a national conversation about using the public power model to regulate the telecom era.

Screenshot of Jim Baller from a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event

In 1995, Baller and his colleagues began what would become a long, brutal fight against legislation preventing municipal broadband.

His attempt was able to impact the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

In response to a Texas law passed in 1995, when incumbent providers were first lobbying for states to adopt legislation against municipal broadband, APPA worked to get language inserted into Section 253 of the Telecom Act that they thought would stop state laws preventing municipal broadband once and for all.

APPA’s language declared that no state statute, regulation or other legal requirement may prohibit the ability of “any entity” to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.

When the decision reached the Supreme Court of the United States, in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, the Court found they “couldn’t be sure that Congress meant “any entity” to apply to public entities, and not just to private entities, so it therefore had to find that Section 253 did not authorize the [Federal Communications Commission] to preempt the state barriers in question,” Baller told Broadband Breakfast.

Attempting to shape a National Broadband Plan

But Baller did not give up on his quest.

In 2008, Baller and his colleagues began to work on a call to action, which they planned to send to whichever party won the 2008 presidential election.

Working on the document forced the coalition to drill down into their common values, goals and objectives. The crew went on to form the U.S. Broadband Coalition, establishing six committees to advise the new administration on major issues.

“There was so little understanding of the big picture at the time,” Baller recalled in a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday.

In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which reflected several of the ideas included in the call to action, such as the need for substantial federal support for broadband deployment and adoption.

Congress created the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program and the Broadband Initiatives Program, the first significant federal broadband subsidy programs unconnected to the universal service fund. The measure also required the FCC to develop a National Broadband Plan.

While federal recognition of these demands was a big win for Baller and his colleagues, he did not stop his efforts there.

In 2014, alongside Joanne Hovis, Baller co-founded the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, which is now comprised of more than 600 organizations and individuals who support the authority of local communities to make choices surrounding broadband internet.

CLIC has participated in numerous battles over barriers to public broadband initiatives. Members often champion the importance of local broadband and defend municipal broadband against state governments.

Baller maintained that the availability of municipal broadband impacts “economic development, educational opportunity, public safety, access to affordable modern health care, smart transportation, energy efficiency, environmental protection, cost-effective government service and so much more.” He has written extensively on the relationship between broadband and economic development.

“It would be great if barriers to local internet choice were suddenly to disappear, thereby removing CLIC’s main reason for being,” Baller said. “Unfortunately, we do not see that happening anytime soon. So we’ll just have to keep up the good fight.”

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Broadband's Impact

Julio Fuentes: Access Delayed Was Access Denied to the Poorest Americans

Big Telecom companies caused months and months of delays in the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Remember when millions of students in dense urban areas and less-populated rural areas weren’t dependent on home broadband access so they could attend school?

Remember when we didn’t need telehealth appointments, and broadband access in urban and outlying areas was an issue that could be dealt with another day?

Remember when the capability to work remotely in underserved communities wasn’t the difference between keeping a job and losing it?

Not anymore.

Education. Health care. Employment. The COVID-19 pandemic affected them all, and taking care of a family in every respect required broadband access and technology to get through large stretches of the pandemic.

You’d think the Federal Communications Commission and its then-acting chairwoman would have pulled out all the stops to make sure that this type of service was available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible — especially when there’s a targeted federally funded program for that important purpose.

Alas, by all appearances, some Big Telecom companies threw their weight around and caused months and months of delays, denying this life-changing access to the people who needed it most — at the time they needed it most.

The program in question is the federally funded Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The EBB offered eligible households — often the poorest Americans — a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service, and those households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop or other computer if they contribute just $10 to the purchase. Huge value and benefits for technology that should no longer be the privilege of only those with resources.

Seems fairly straightforward, right?

It should have been. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel slammed on the brakes. Why? It turns out that Big Telecom giants wanted more time to get ready to grab a piece of the action — a lot more time. While the program was ready to go in February, it didn’t actually launch until several months later.

That’s months of unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t providers who were waiting. It was Americans in underserved and rural areas, desperate for a connection to the world.

Here are some numbers for Rosenworcel to consider:

  • As recently as March, 58% of white elementary students were enrolled for full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latino students, and 18% of Asian peers were able to attend school in person.
  • Greater portions of families of color and low-income families reportedly fell out of contact with their children’s schools during the pandemic. In one national survey in spring 2020, nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families — in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
  • In fall 2020, only 61% of households with income under $25,000 reported that the internet was “always available” for their children to use for educational purposes; this share was 86% among households with incomes above $75,000.

And all of these numbers cut across other key issues such as health care and maintaining employment.

Access delayed was access denied to the poorest, most isolated Americans during the worst pandemic in generations.

Allowing Big Telecom companies to get their ducks in a row (and soak up as many federal dollars as possible) left poor and rural Americans with no options, for months. Who knows how many children went without school instruction? Or how many illnesses went undiagnosed? Or how many jobs were terminated?

This delay was appalling, and Chairwoman Rosenworcel should have to answer for her actions to the Senate Commerce Committee as it considers her nomination for another term as commissioner. Rather than expedite important help to people who needed it most, she led the agency’s delay — for the benefit of giant providers, not the public.

Hopefully, the committee moves with more dispatch than she did in considering her actual fitness to be FCC chairwoman for another term.

Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Texas High School Students Enter the Fight for Better Connectivity

Students in a Houston-area school district hosted a panel on connecting schools and libraries as part of a national event on bridging the digital divide.



John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – Generation Z students are making their mark at a Houston-area school district by adding broadband access to the list of issues they are actively working on.

The high school students in the Fort Bend Independent School District organized a panel conversation on internet access in education as part of Connected Nation’s national event titled “20 Years of Connecting the Nation,” and were able to host some high-profile guests in the world of telecommunications.

The November 17 panel included John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, Chris Martinez, division director of information technology for the Harris County Public Library, Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, and Meredith Watassek, director of career and technical education for Fort Bend ISD.

Nine percent of residents in Harris County, where Houston is located, reports that they do not have a connected device at home and 18 percent say they do not have access to an internet connection. These gaps in access are the focus of the panelists’ digital equity efforts.

With Windhausen and Martinez present on the panel, a key point of discussion was the importance of helping libraries to act as anchor institutions – institutions which help enable universal broadband access.

Watassek pointed out that she has been helping oversee distance learning in Fort Bend ISD for six years, starting such a program to enable teachers to teach students in several of the district’s buildings without having to drive to each one, and has seen that with time and learned experience it is possible to work through distance learning logistical issues that school districts around the nation are currently facing.

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Broadband's Impact

New York City Broadband Housing Initiative Gets First Completed Project

The initiative is part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan.



BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird speaks at a press conference at Melrose Housing. Photo provided by BlocPower.

November 30, 2021 – BlocPower, Metro IAF, People’s Choice Communications, and pillars in the Bronx community in New York City gathered Monday at the Melrose Housing development to celebrate the first of five New York City Housing Authority community Wi-Fi projects completed by BlocPower.

Community members and other stakeholders were welcomed by Rev. Sean McGillicuddy, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and leader at Metro IAF. “As the pandemic has shown us, internet is not just a luxury, it is a necessity,” he said. “We have internet now in Melrose Housing and we are celebrating with hundreds of Immaculate Conception Church parishioners.”

The build out to Melrose Housing and Courtland Avenue was part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan, with a goal of connecting 600,000 additional New Yorkers considered underserved. A third of those underserved people are residents in New York City Housing Authority communities.

With these two projects completed, Melrose and Courtland Housing can now provide internet to their more than 2,500 residents spread across 1,200 apartments and ten buildings.

“We are incredibly excited today to bring this much-needed, low-cost wi-fi alternative to Melrose and Courtlandt Avenue,” said BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird. “What began as the by-product of our efforts to convert New York City’s aging, urban buildings into smarter, cleaner more eco-friendly ones, installing community-owned urban wi-fi networks has now become an important part of BlocPower’s expanded mandate – to help close the digital divide in America’s underserved communities.”

P.C.C. technicians were able to install antennas on roofs and wi-fi nodes on each floor. To have a sufficient workforce to accomplish this task, BlocPower trained local New Yorkers through the company’s “Pathways: Civilian Climate Corps” program.

Going forward, P.C.C. will be responsible for maintaining, billing, and customer service. Melrose and Courtland residents will, in turn, elect a board to represent them in matters of data governance, use of proceeds, and quality of service issues.

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